Vij's Railway Express
Tips Are Included's (TAI) interview with Vikram Vij (VV) on his nomination of Vij's Railway Express for Air Canada's enRoute Magazine's People Choice Award for Canada's Best New Restaurant.
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TAI: Congratulations on placing in the top 35 for enRoute Magazine's People's Choice Award. Why did you pick the name Vij's Railway Express?
VV: Well the name Vij's Railway Express is to denote that there are small little towns in India that get huge accolades within their own country but no one knows about the cuisine outside of India. So what I wanted to do was highlight the cuisine from these small little towns. So if you actually look at it, it's like you are in Europe for example and you go to Salzburg, Salzburg does a certain kind of cuisine. Vienna does a certain kind of cuisine. Budapest does something different. I wanted to showcase theses cuisine from these small little towns, as delicious and as flavourful as any cuisine will be. So it was very important for me to showcase that. So Vij's Railway Express is a culinary journey of my travels through India for the people of Vancouver or wherever they are from.
TAI: Why did you decide to start a food truck?
VV: I really thought the food truck would be a great angle of bringing Vij's cuisine into the home. Not everyone can come to Vij's for dinner. And to be on the street and move around from one side to the other or we do a little catering from the other side, was being able to bring Vij's quality food to your own home. And bring the awareness to the culture that I'm so proud of.
TAI: What has the general response been to your food truck and the Indian food being served on the truck?
VV: Initially the response was overwhelming, people loved it, it was a great idea. And then it mellows out like any good thing. It slows down. People were like, yeah, we love it, we love the flavours but we'll get to it. I think our biggest challenge was the winter because it was so cold and wet that people just wouldn't venture outside. Which meant that I would still keep it open because I had committed myself that I was going to keep it open. This year we decided not to keep it open because it just didn't make sense but we decided to do pockets of catering, functions or anything else from the Vij's Railway Express. It's almost like a mobile restaurant. It is kind of an extension of Vikram Vij and his style of cooking just in a different manner.
TAI: What's the best selling item on your food truck?
VV: Initially when we first opened it was halibut cheek curry but now I think it's the "lucknow" kabobs. These are like little naans with homemade sausages wrapped up with some Indian flavours and some chutney and people enjoy that. And one thing to look at whether you are in Greece and having a sandwich that has roasted chicken in it or you are in Lebanon and you are having a falafel sandwiches. Sandwiches, people love. They love grabbing that food with their hands and the juiciness of it and the flavours. That is why the lamb kabob is the most popular dish on the menu right now.
TAI: Any plans to expand the Vij's empire to Toronto?
VV: Not at the moment. You know it's always in the back of my head because I always believe that Toronto is a great city. It's a great culinary city. I find that the chefs are doing great work in this area but not only just in Toronto but around the neighbourhoods, that's the most beautiful part of it. I go to small little towns like Stratford or anywhere else, the chefs that are there are so focused, so humble and so that I would eventually love to. I am actually coming back to Niagara next week to teach at the Niagara College and this is a first year program at the Niagara College where there will be three sections of it. One will be for the students, one will be a sit down dinner almost like a pop up restaurant sit down dinner there and then the other one will be a dinner for the chefs around the neighbourhood who just want to incorporate one or two dishes on their menus and learn something. So this is gonna happen 14, 15 and 16 at Niagara College.
TAI: And you mentioned Stratford. How was your time at Savour Stratford? What was the highlight? And would you consider coming back next year?
VV: I think my biggest love was when I got there I felt that Stratford was this little jewel on the crown of Canada! So unique, so beautiful, so different. People were so nice. When I went to the coffee shop, Revel, the passion of the people making coffee was right there. You know, when you went to Mercer Hall or some other place, the food was so generally sourced. And the small little town feel but in the end a big city on their own level. And will I ever come back, if I get asked, I will come back in a minute.
TAI: What are the main struggles in trying to make people see and believe that Indian cuisine is as good as French, Italian or Spanish?
VV: I don't think it's a struggle. I think we should call it bringing awareness to the cuisine. It's not a struggle. A struggle would be someone that didn't like it but awareness is "oh I didn't really know that there are so many unique flavours of Indian cooking". They were not use to it. So now when they taste it and they taste the nuances of it then they will say, "oh yes, I love it, I love it, I love it." So I don't think they are struggles more it's my job to bring the awareness of this cuisine up and keep telling people and I think that is why for me it was so important when I went to Savour Stratford and I talked to everybody and to look into everybody's eyes and say, "Just try my food, just do me a favour, just try it. you will not be disappointed". That's the angle that I ran with and that's the angle I go with everywhere. I never go in as a struggle, this is not like I am going to bang my head against the wall and say, "You must do something". My angle is "Guys do me a favour, taste the food, who cares if you don't like it or not. do me a favour and give me the chance to at least taste the food".
TAI: Do you believe that non-Indian chefs can make Indian food as well as an Indian chef?
VV: You know if you had asked me this question 15 years ago, I would have been "No, not ready!" I would have said, "No, Indian food can not be cooked by non-Indians". But now, the younger chefs coming down the pipeline, you look at them in the schools, what they are learning and how they are broadening their horizons and how multi-cultural they've become. I definitely think that a day will come when a non-Indian is gonna open up an excellent Indian restaurant and create their own style. It will still be rooted in India with the spices and everything, with the roasting and the grinding and everything else with a little modern twist to it which they will create their own style. So I do not think that only an Indian can cook Indian food. I think the time has come that the younger chefs will take the baton from me and create their own style of cuisine.
TIA: In a world mostly dominated by male chefs in the kitchen, your restaurants are known to employ predominately females. What is the reason for that decision?
VV: It was twofold. One was when we opened the restaurant up my head chef "Auntie" had said to me, "I will like you to have women work in the kitchen because it's a little bit like therapy for us. We can talk about our husbands and our mother in laws and everything else in the kitchen without feeling oh my god there's a guy listening". And I kind of like that. It was more of a love gesture for her, it was more to say "Okay "Auntie" I won't put anybody else if you don't want". But, I do think that at a certain level the style of cooking that we do, Indian women do understand this because these are not women who have gone to school or anything else. These are women who are passionate home cooks who are learning how to cook it. It's like if your mother is a great cook at home and then your aunt is a good cook and her sister is a good cook, then you don't need to bring anyone else in. There's nothing against that, I mean, I love guys in the kitchen and that's one thing about Stratford, I met a couple of guys that were so passionate about Indian food and I was impressed by that.
TAI: How do you feel about being nominated for enRoute Magazine's People's Choice Award for Best New Restaurant?
VV: To be honest with you, I am humbled and I love the fact that you know enRoute was willing to give a mobile restaurant like mine a chance. I would say it's not just a cart, I would say it's a mobile restaurant to give it a little chance to be playing in the same playing field. I always said this to everybody, " You don't always have to win but give me the chance and honour to give me the same playing field as everybody else does. I do not need to be better than anybody else, that's fine but give me the playing field. Even in Vancouver, I tell people do not categorize me as one style of restaurant, tell me that I'm a restaurant because I provide the same love and the passion that any other restaurant does.
TAI: How does it feel to be the only food truck to ever make the list? That is very impressive.
VV: Yes, it is very impressive because everyone always calls it a food truck. And I always say, for me it is my mobile restaurant. It is like if I took a part of my curry and I sat on a side street somewhere and I opened up a small little restaurant on my own. A small little shack and I sold that curry to you, that's my restaurant! Restaurants are not just a restaurant it's an extension of who I am as Vikram Vij!
TAI: And our last questions that we have for you is...with such a great profile and numerous TV appearances, do you have any plans to have you own food show? Perhaps with your wife?
VV: That's a million dollar question on its own and I'm glad that you asked me that. A few years ago I was asked by Food Television Network to go to India and talk about Indian diaspora. How Indians have moved from India to Uganda to Kenya to East Africa, to all these places and to create cuisines to see what they have done and to bring it back here. Somehow, from a marketing point of view this did not make sense for them. But would I love it, yes. Yes, I would love it because I would love to showcase my country to the world and say come and visit it once in your lifetime and see how beautiful this country is. How different it is. How unique it is. But more then that, there's a lot of love and passion behind this county and the cuisine.
Don't forget to click on the link below and vote for Vij's Railway Express for the enRoute Magazine's People's Choice Award of Canada's best new restaurant.